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On a study tour to Kenya: key takeaways and inspiration for East African seed professionals

Published on
October 2, 2023

After following an online education programme on sustainable agriculture and resilient seed systems, a group of agricultural professionals from Somaliland and South Sudan went on a study tour to Kenya. It became a valuable experience, not least because it was the first time abroad for many of the participants.

The study tour was part of a NUFFIC-supported education project, executed by the Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation entitled The Horn of Africa Food System Resilience: Making Horticulture work for healthier diets and income generation in protracted crises. The aim of the education project was to teach agricultural professionals how to contribute to a more resilient food system. Food systems in South Sudan and Somaliland have been affected by protracted armed conflicts and the impact of extreme climatic conditions, such as recurring drought. “When seeds are lost, farmlands totally barren and infrastructure gone, many hurdles must be overcome to rebuild the food system”, says Arnab Gupta, researcher at the Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation and co-coordinator of the education project.

Work in practice

Most participants were mid-career professionals working at East-African universities. Many of them had never travelled abroad before. The – online - lessons on topics such as seed science and technology, seed systems transformation, community seed banks, and international seed policies strengthened their educational and research knowledge. The group appreciated the training, Gupta stresses. “They certainly gained new knowledge, but we also wanted to expose them to how things work in practice. It is very valuable when course participants get the opportunity to interact with people in the field, ask questions, see the results and gaps and see them managing the circumstances. A study tour is ideal for this.”

First stop: Nairobi

The first destination during the study tour was the Kenyan capital Nairobi. There the group visited the Genetic Resources Research Institute (GeRRI) and the National Gene bank of Kenya. Both institutes are crucial for long-term conservation of agricultural biodiversity. In Kenya, farmers are involved in preserving local seed varieties. Gupta cannot stress enough how important this is for agriculture in the long run: “Farmers know which local varieties perform well under which conditions. Government pressure or pressure from commercial parties can promote certain varieties developed in the west. The downside is that these varieties can be quite resource intensive and often only perform well under certain conditions. At the same time, they crowd out local varieties that farmers have been growing for hundreds of years.”

Western Kenya: community seed banks

To see how important local communities are in conserving genetic variation in seed material and propagating it for common use, four community seed banks were visited in western Kenya. These communal facilities play a key role in keeping local, resistant seed varieties available, Gupta stresses: "There are, of course, institutional seed banks, funded by national governments. But for farmers, it is hard to access the varieties maintained in these seed banks. That's why the community seed banks are in place. Farmers get together, bring their own grown seed and store it for communal use." There is a big 'but', he adds: "As important as these local initiatives are for food security and biodiversity, their resources are limited; especially when it comes to technical know-how. That is why it is important to link these local seed banks to national seed banks. These can then, for example, take care of characterising and propagating local varieties and give each community seed bank their share. In Kenya, since a few years, there has been a very active collaboration between the national gene bank and the community seed bank.”

“Women know from experience”

From interaction with the community seed bank members, the group realised how important the role of women is in seed conservation and management. Gupta: "The decision on which variety to grow is often taken by women in East Africa. For example, they tell their husbands to be careful: You are sowing late in the season, so it is best to take this variety, because it is resistant to a certain insect that is active precisely then. Being responsible for feeding their families, women know from experience how important it is to preserve local varieties.”

At a local food and seed fair organised by the community seed banks, the study tour participants were impressed by how crop variety is promoted. For instance, the best-performing farmers received an award as motivation to continue the good work. For the participants, the fair was an inspiring example to be emulated in their own countries. In Kisumu, at the north-eastern tip of Lake Victoria, participants attended a workshop on seed storage techniques. Not only traditional techniques were explained using ash and cow dung, but also low-cost modern practices with hermetically sealed containers and zeolite beads. The importance of quality seed management was also discussed. This is important not only for conservation but also for sharing seeds and promoting learning within municipalities.

Promising initiatives

After visiting Kisumu County, with its beautiful landscapes and diverse agriculture, participants were introduced to the multitude of activities taking place on and around Lake Victoria, from fishing and mining to tourism. In Vihiga, they met local farmers who together provide a rich diversity of crops and some simple but effective methods to cope with diseases and pests. Brimming with inspiration, the participants returned home. The beauty of it all, according to Gupta, is that the project has already led to promising initiatives, each of which has been rewarded with a small grant. For instance, one of the participants developed an in-country train-the-trainer course based on what was learned. This in turn has been translated into a technology and knowledge learning agenda, which is to be incorporated into the university education curriculum. Other mini-projects are taking place, such as training farmers in climate-smart agriculture and setting up several local community seed banks. Gupta concludes that it was a successful project, including the study tour across Kenya. “We hope it will lead to a network of local professionals for continued cooperation and knowledge development.”